Alec Ross' Odd Tweet About 21st Century Statecraft

We continue to hear about the country's positive scientific developments, including the winner of the most recent Apps for Africa contest. But we should also be hearing as much as about the setbacks.
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There was an odd tweet yesterday from Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It reads, "We can't leave the digital playing field to Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. This... shows need for 21st Century Statecraft."

"This" was a link to an AFP story about how "Al-Qaeda has combined the global reach of both the English language and the Internet as cyber-terrorism tools to win over non-Arab sympathisers."

There was no single oddity to the tweet; rather, there were quite a few oddities encapsulated in these 138 characters. The oddities encapsulate four problems confronting this highly publicized initiative of Secretary Clinton's:

1. "21st Century Statecraft:" Ross uses the term in reference to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, two non-state actors. This begs the question: is it statecraft when Hezbollah and Al Qaeda use the Web to communicate, collaborate, and share around their message? Technically, the answer is no, as neither is a state. However, the standard definition of 21st Century Statecraft is the US State Department will use the tools of the web to shift away from a sole focus on government-to-government interaction and towards government-to-people, people-to-government, and maybe even people-to-people." Replace "State Department" with "Al Qaeda," and this all-encompassing definition of 21st century statecraft seems flawed, as it begs the question: what exactly is the statecraft in 21st century statecraft?

2. "We can't leave the digital playing field to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah." A particular problem with this statement starts with "We," as it is unclear as to whom is Ross referring. The implication is the State Department, but his efforts are being coordinated with DoD and other countries, so it could mean them, too. He also may implicitly be referring to the US private sector, to whom Secretary Clinton spoke to last Friday in Silicon Valley, asking business leaders and entrepreneurs for help in forming "public-private partnerships that link the on-the-ground experience of our diplomats and development experts with the energy and resources of the business community."

The real problem with this choice of words is Ross is tacitly admitting the technology he is evangelizing is empowering both our enemies and the enemies of our allies, while at the same time the US not only may be falling behind, but "leaving" the digital playing field to non-state actors. Given the AFP article's report on Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts on English-speaking audiences via digital media, this is a worrying implication.

3. This...shows the need for 21st Century Statecraft:" Ross declares there is a "need" for his initiative, but this choice of words begs the question: what problem is 21st Century Statecraft, as defined, solving for US foreign policy? For US National Security? For the State Department?

The initiative has been intended to address the new reality of state diplomacy in a networked world. It is also a logical extension of the success of the 2008 Obama campaign, and of Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter's vision of US engagement in a networked world.

But the content of this tweet raises the question of whether 21st Century Statecraft should be a cornerstone at all. The Government-to-People arm of 21st Century Statecraft was supposed to win hearts and minds, particularly in the Muslim world, and now it may be losing to a similar approach from non-state actors. Ross has inadvertently raised the question of whether 21st Century Statecraft is the right approach, much less a necessary one.

Foreign Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov argues it may not be the right approach. He tweeted to Ross in response: "'21st Century Statecraft' is completely ineffective in countering Al Qaeda online (or offline)." Morozov's point is not that we need more of "21st Century Statecraft" but rather, we may need something else altogether. It's a bold point, and it picks up on the funny phrasing of Ross' tweet: Ross seems concerned about the future of his initiative.

He should be. The article Ross posted suggests that President Obama's YouTube Diplomacy around his speech in Cairo has not had the long-term consequences that were implied by the initial success of the video's mass, multilingual distribution. We had the first signs of the flaws in this approach during the protests in Iran earlier this year, where protesters asked where President Obama was to help them. Now, both Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are exploiting these flaws by replicating the facets of the 21st Century Diplomacy approach, and using the Internet to successfully target Muslim and non-Muslim hearts and minds.

4. Given the above, where is this all going? There is no clear answer as to where 21st Century Statecraft is headed. This is the fault of President Obama, who initially fueled this initiative with his speech at Cairo, and then failed to follow up on it with either a clear strategic roadmap for a dialogue or subsequent similar large-scale communications.

From the above, the following can be said at this point in time. First, the definition of "statecraft" needs to be revisited, or if not revisited, then constantly adjusted. A simple solution would be to have Secretary Clinton discuss how the State Department's understanding of digital diplomacy has evolved in each new speech on the topic, and move towards a new definition for their efforts.

Second, Ross' conclusion is right: the US cannot leave the playing field to Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other non-state actors. The US must engage in the space. However, State must stop the evangelism of positive spin, and instead, must begin to use both its failings and its successes to teach its digital audience, the State Department, and the American public why engagement in the digital space is crucial to America's future relations in the world.

Third, if Morozov is right, and 21st Century Statecraft is indeed the wrong path, there is nothing wrong with Secretary Clinton admitting that the approach needs to be fine-tuned or altogether redefined. A master tech salesman like Steve Jobs will hold a press conference to admit the failings of his iPhone 4, and then adjust and move on; if the President and Secretary of State are serious about engaging in the digital space, they would take a similar approach. Yet the continued positive spin from Secretary Clinton about this initiative reflects a blind faith that is anathema to the trial and error approach 21st Century Statecraft requires.

Last, it is clear from the article about Al Qaeda's successes and from the above that President Obama has not set a strategic roadmap for this initiative. Perhaps it is the nature of the Internet that State's digital media endeavors have far outpaced traditional foreign policy strategy planning, but there seems to be a muddied message about this important initiative, and our enemies are seizing on our confused messaging.

The facts being tweeted by Secretary Clinton's Innovation Advisor reflect a very different reality, one to which the US State Department should be rapidly adjusting. For this reason, it is important for President Obama and/or Secretary Clinton give a foreign policy speech outlining what they've learned through 21st Century Statecraft to date, and where both the US and the State Department are headed based on those lessons. The speech should include a summary of the direct and unintended consequences of the distribution of the Nawrooz and Cairo Speech videos to the Muslim world. Above all else, the speech should begin to take steps to clarify what it means for the US to have laid out and pledged to defend the Five Internet Freedoms, and then lay out a roadmap as to where they see the 21st Century Statecraft initiative evolving, if at all.

The odds of this speech seem low. We hear less about the SMS initiatives for Haiti and Pakistan, and notably, Secretary Clinton buried her mention of digital diplomacy to a mere sentence in her speech to the CFR last month, despite covering a wide range of topics. Given the above, this may not have been an accident. In either case, this decision was a mistake. The State Department cannot bury this initiative when it is not politically convenient to promote it.

The Obama Administration has pursued an ambitious, tech-savvy agenda in an institution and a city resistant to change, and not renowned for its tech-savvy. Yet we continue to hear mostly positive developments, including the winner of the most recent Apps for Africa contest. We should also be hearing about the setbacks of this initiative as much as its successes, and because we don't, there is a growing disconnect between positive spin and tweets like the one Alec Ross sent out yesterday.

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